Like the 18th Stage of the Tour de France, the grueling doping saga continues for Lance Armstrong and his former teammates.
Earlier this week, Lance officially learned of new allegations of doping, this time from the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). On Tuesday, USADA sent Lance a 15-page memo, accusing the cyclist-turned-triathlete of using and promoting the use of erythropoietin (EPO), blood transfusions, testosterone, human growth hormone, anti-inflammatory steroids, and masking agents.
The USADA memo follows an announcement from the US Attorney’s Office earlier this year that it had ended its criminal investigation of Lance and his teammates. That criminal investigation was focused on determining whether the team—sponsored by the US Postal Service—had committed any federal crimes, including mail and/or wire fraud, drug distribution, and witness tampering. No criminal charges were brought forth as a result of that investigation.
But doping in professional sports is not a federal crime, and soon after the US Attorney’s Office announced in early February that it had closed their investigation, USADA announced that it would resume its probe, noting that their own probe had been suspended while the criminal investigation was being conducted. And unlike the investigation previously conducted by the US Attorney’s Office, the latest USADA probe is intended to protect the integrity of the sport, not to enforce any criminal laws.
And while no sanctions resulted from the criminal probe that ended in February, the USADA probe has already had at least one immediate impact on Lance: The World Triathlon Corporation (WTC) has suspended him from the Ironman Triathlon this fall, citing WTC policy that any athlete who is the subject of a doping investigation cannot compete in any WTC-owned or licensed event, including the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. The Ironman World Championship will be held on October 13 this year, so barring a retraction of Lance’s suspension or a positive resolution of the investigation before this date (neither of which seems likely at this point), Lance will be unable to compete in this year’s Ironman World Championship (or any other WTC event). This may be a very important point, and we’ll come back to it later. The USADA probe could also have a wider impact if it implicates other riders in any doping scandal. Specifically, the probe could be impacting the composition of the US cycling team that competes in the London Olympic Games this summer. Just today, four members of Lance’s former cycling teams suddenly and unexpectedly declined to participate in the Games despite previously stating their strong desire to compete. George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer, Christian Vande Velde, and David Zabriskie did not provide any reason for their withdrawals from Olympic consideration, but the sudden nature of the announcements is raising questions as to whether the USADA probe will implicate these riders.
While the USADA memo made national news headlines earlier this week, it probably was not a surprise to Lance or his former teammates. From the looks of it, USADA is well aware of the criminal probe and the information that it brought forth. And depending on the results of the USADA probe, Lance could be banned from further competitions and/or be stripped of one or more of his cycling victories, including one or more of the seven straight Tour de France victories he tallied from 1999 through 2005. It is these Tour de France victories that have garnered the most attention in the doping discussions. But Lance’s string of seven consecutive Tour victories is astounding whether he doped or not, and his long-term domination of one of the dirtiest sports leads us to believe either:
a) Lance was much, much better than every other competitor in the sport of cycling, including many who were following a structured doping program as part of their training regimen, or
b) Lance doped like many (or most or even all) of the other well-known competitors in the sport of cycling, or
c) both a) and b).
If cornered, I’d probably argue c) is the case, but more than anything, I wish the investigations would be resolved once and for all, for the sake of the sport. Currently, either Lance is lying, or his accusers are lying, (or possibly both, I suppose).
For his part, Lance responded to the latest charges this week by reminding us that he never failed any of the many drug tests to which he was subjected. Unfortunately, this is something he shares in common with many confirmed dopers, including Marion Jones of track & field fame. She, too, never failed a drug test and frequently reminded us of that fact, but she was eventually proven—without any doubt—to be guilty of doping. Similar examples of athletes in other sports abound, and so the claim “I’ve never tested positive” proves—in and of itself—very little. In fact, it really only proves that the athlete in question hasn’t been caught, which is normally not the issue at hand.
Perhaps many or all of Lance’s teammates and competitors (many of whom doped and all of whom weren’t as good as Lance) stand in awe of Lance’s cycling accomplishments. More than anyone, these fellow cyclists (including those who doped) know what it takes to be that good at that level, and they witnessed Lance dominate their sport at the highest level for many years. Perhaps many of these athletes are now speaking up for the sake of cleaning up a sport that certainly was (and still may be) very dirty. Perhaps some are wondering to themselves as they undergo yet another round of questioning about the past, “Really, how far are you going to take this, Lance?” And perhaps we will find out something new as a result of this investigation. Or perhaps not. But regardless, one fact remains: no other cyclist—not even a confirmed doper—has accomplished what Lance has. Not even former Tour de France champions Alberto Contador, Floyd Landis, or Bjarne Riis, each of whom tested positive for banned substances and/or later admitted to doping. No one—clean or not—has come close to winning seven Tours, and it’s possible no one ever will.
If Lance also doped sometime during his cycling career and he finally admits to it during this latest investigation, then he and his teammates—and everyone else caught up in these seemingly never-ending probes—can move on. Again, given that Lance repeatedly crushed legions of athletes who were later found to be dopers, and if Lance also doped, he arguably didn’t hold an unfair advantage over the scores of others who were doping.
But it is exactly this line of thinking—that most or all of the best cyclists are (or were) doping—that does not sit well with USADA. To be a legitimate and effective organization, USADA must continually uphold the fundamental premise that no one—including Lance—is more important than the sport itself. And given the reported evidence, USADA would be neglecting its duties if it chose not to investigate the evidence it has collected, and so any claim that USADA is on a witch hunt is patently ridiculous. The mission with which USADA is charged—rooting out athletes who cheat to try to give those that don’t cheat a level playing field on which to compete—places the integrity of the sport the rights of any individual athlete, and so every athlete should (really, must) be willing to undergo the scrutiny of investigations, especially athletes who win/dominate like Lance has.
Interestingly, how USADA can accomplish its mission in this case may have less to do with Lance’s past in cycling, and more to do with his future in triathlon competitions. On that point, Lance is clearly focused on being a competitive triathlete. And by the looks of it, he’s going to be tough to beat in his new sport—provided he is allowed to compete. And, just maybe, herein lies the rub….
Imagine that Lance isn’t allowed to compete in triathlons going forward because of a ban that results from the USADA investigation. In this scenario, we would never know how great Lance could have been as a triathlete. With the possible exception of Lance’s competitors who have never doped, we all lose in this scenario. On the other hand, if, in order to be allowed to compete in major triathlons, Lance was made to acknowledge that he previously doped on one or more occasions during his cycling career, that may be something the 40-year old would consider. Despite initial appearances, the result could represent a “win/win” situation for both Lance and USADA. Lance would be allowed to compete in future Ironman competitions (even if it won’t be until 2013), and USADA could send a strong anti-doping message to athletes—especially young ones in sports where many, or most, or all, of the most elite athletes are doping.
If this is, in fact, what plays out, Lance would stand to lose some fans, but he would also stand to gain some fans as well. After all, the sport of cycling that he dominated for so long was replete with dopers, and he beat all of them. Soundly. For seven years. Add to this fact the often-demonstrated ability of sports fans to forgive athletes who admit to using banned substances, while holding in contempt those athletes who continue to deny use despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and Lance could find himself with just as many fans—or even more fans—if he admits to doping. Further consider the volunteers, supporters, and beneficiaries of his LiveStrong Foundation (many of whom probably couldn’t care less if Lance possibly used EPO to help build a foundation to find a cure for cancer). Considering all of that, you just might conclude that Lance will always have quite the following, regardless of whether he doped or not. Put another way, Lance’s remarkable legacy will remain intact for most fans, even if he admits to doping.
Moving forward, let’s hope this latest investigation resolves the never-ending doping scandal surrounding Lance and his former teammates once and for all. From a fan perspective, let’s worry less about whether Lance’s accomplishments in the past were impacted by doping, and worry more about whether Lance will be able to compete as a triathlete in the future. After all, Lance could very well raise the bar for even major events like Ironman, and he could potentially leave a remarkable legacy in not one, but two sports.
And perhaps more importantly, from the athlete’s perspective, and for the sake of cycling and other sports, let’s hope this investigation makes USADA stronger and more effective as an organization, and that it gets USADA closer to realizing its goal of establishing a level playing field for all athletes in all sports.
Tags: Alberto Contador, Bjarne Riis, doping scandal, epo, Floyd Landis, Greg Lamond, ironman, Lance Armstrong, lance armstrong banned for life, Livestrong, Tour de France, Tyler Hamilton, us anti-doping agency, us attorney's office, USADA, World Triathlon Corporation, wtc